English teachers have long claimed reading books makes you a better person, maybe because their livelihoods have long depended on it. Now they've got proof, courtesy of the science wing.
But not just any books. Like the National Endowment for the Arts' recent survey, this study distinguishes, somewhat snobbishly, between literary fiction and—ahem—popular fiction. In other words, between what you read in college (DeLillo, Woolf, all the rest) and what you read in the waiting room (E. L. James and such). It's reading the former category, even for as little time as a few minutes, that makes you do better on psychology tests that measure empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.
Put much more succinctly, reading good fiction makes you a better person than reading trashy books.
Here's how it works. The study, "Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind," was carried out at New York's New School for Social Research, where researchers paid participants to read excerpts for only a few minutes before taking computerized empathy tests, reports The New York Times. Some read literary fiction. Some read bestsellers (selections by Rosamunde Pilcher, Robert Heinlein, and Gillian Flynn). Some read nonfiction, taken from Smithsonian Magazine. Some read nothing. This was accompanied by four other experiments.